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Trevor Hancock: We are deeply connected to and kin with all of life

We need a reverence for the Earth and all it contains, an awareness of a connection to nature that is, at its heart, spiritual
In North America, we are 80 per cent urbanised and we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors — and a ­further five per cent in cars and other vehicles — which ­separates us from nature, writes Trevor Hancock. Darryl Dyck, THE CANADIAN PRESS

Two weeks ago, I ended my column on values fit for the 21st century by stating that we have a set of values that are not fit for purpose today.

One of those unfit value sets relates to our ­relationship with nature, which is rooted in a sense that we are separate from and indeed superior to nature. We believe we can manipulate and manage nature for the benefit of our societies and our economies.

In a very real sense, we are indeed separated from nature. In North America we are 80 per cent urbanized and we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors — and a further five per cent in cars and other vehicles.

So we — and especially our children — have very little contact with nature, and most of that is a ­constrained form of nature in an urban setting.

Moreover, in economic terms we discount nature. A forest has no economic value until it is cut down and turned into lumber or paper.

The pollution of air, water and land, especially well away from us, is considered an externality, not ­factored into our economic models and measures, “for no ­better reason,” wrote the late Herman Daly, a leading proponent of an economics of wellbeing, “than because we have made no provision for them in our economic m­odels.”

But this set of values is incompatible with our ­survival. So the first of four sets of value ­transformations I propose is the need to (re)establish a sense of reverence for the Earth and all it contains, an awareness of a connection to nature that is both rooted in ecological reality and is, at its heart, spiritual.

Duwamish Chief Seattle reportedly said almost two centuries ago, “we are part of the great web of life, and whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.”

We need to recognize that simple fact and ­acknowledge that ecosystems and the species they ­contain have intrinsic worth, that nature has rights, that other species have rights, and we owe them justice.

All of this has enormous resonance with long-held Indigenous world views and traditional teachings.

I was powerfully struck by this point from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015: “Reconciliation between Aboriginal and ­non-Aboriginal Canadians, from an Aboriginal perspective, also requires reconciliation with the natural world. If human beings resolve problems between ­themselves but continue to destroy the natural world, then ­reconciliation remains incomplete. This is a ­perspective that we as commissioners have repeatedly heard: that reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the earth.”

I am also moved by the oft-heard concept among Indigenous people of “all our relations” — that we are deeply connected to and kin with all of life — ­something modern DNA studies show to be true to a remarkable degree.

Now I am not Indigenous, but I am a member of a Global Working Group of the International Union of Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE) that is ­Indigenous-led and focused on what Indigenous­ ­perspectives and spirituality bring to our ­understanding of planetary health — the health of human civilizations and the natural systems that ­support them.

We just authored for IUHPE a position statement on planetary health promotion and Indigenous world views and knowledges.

In it, we stated: “Viewing humanity as deeply ­connected with the environment is a central element of Indigenous knowledge systems. This ­interdependence is not a romanticized version of the environment, but one that is perceived through a worldview that our health is tied to the health of the planet. We cannot separate human and ecosystem wellbeing in this interconnected paradigm.”

We also explicitly connected Indigenous world views and knowledges with spiritual approaches: ­“Spirituality is another facet of human life that offers pathways to re-engage with humanity’s deep connection with the natural world, and to foster environmental awareness, activism and wellbeing in ways that can enhance both health promotion and planetary health.”

Whether we approach the issue of a reverence for nature through ecological science, Indigenous values or spirituality does not matter.

The point is to see ourselves in context, and with humility, as just one small part of the global ecosystem that sustains us, and all of life.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

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